Suppressing Tories

By late 1775, if an American attempted to remain loyal to the King and Great Britain, what were the likely consequences?  Are you a modern version of a ‘Tory’ too?

From: Conceived in Liberty, Volume IV, Part II, Chapter 13.  Murray Rothbard, 1976; [Some additional emphasis in bold and separation into smaller paragraphs]:

… On the local level, the old committees of inspection, observation, and correspondence, which had enforced the Continental Association, naturally evolved into new city and rural committees to run the war, specifically to raise and operate the militia and especially to crush dissenting Tories.

The Americans had had no chance to hear present-day opinion that they were merely fighting a conservative and moderate revolution; hence they went at the Tories with a zeal that went beyond the bounds of libertarian principle. The concept of “enemy of American liberty” was quickly extended from violators of the continental boycott to anyone critical of the Revolution. Known and suspected Tories were hauled before the local committees, and as Professor Miller puts it, “If the committees failed to persuade, the mob took over. Thus was created a police system, secret, efficient, and all-powerful.”

Letters, especially to England, were seized at the post offices and carefully examined; spies eagerly took on the task of keeping watch on suspected Tories. And in contrast to enforcement of the Continental Association, committees did not try to confine punishment of Tories to voluntary boycott and ostracism; instead, fines, imprisonment, confiscation, and banishment came increasingly into play.

Persons were hauled before local committees for criticizing the Continental Congress, belittling the Massachusetts Army, criticizing Presbyterian prominence in the Revolution, and a host of other “errors of opinion.” The new extralegal Massachusetts General Court urged Harvard College to dismiss all faculty members having Tory views. Individual Tories were not only boycotted and forced to recant their heresies; stronger methods of punishment were adopted as soon as the rebel committees became the effective authorities in their areas. As early as May 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress recommended to local selectmen and committees that they confiscate the arms of all unfriendly to the rebel cause and forbid anyone to leave the province without special permission of the local committee or the Congress.

The following month, the provincial congress directed the town committees and selectmen to confiscate and take charge of the property of all Tories who had fled behind the British lines at Boston or elsewhere. In New Hampshire, the provincial congress, as the supreme judicial body of the province, sentenced Tory Col. John Fenton to indefinite imprisonment as “an enemy to the liberties of America.” In September, the New York Provincial Congress created a hierarchy of penalties for Tories, including fines, disarming, prison, and banishment. And in November, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law decreeing death and forfeit of property to anyone assisting the British army with information or supplies.

[NB:  Confiscating the property of disloyal refugees is considered pretty nasty by a lot of people when the players are Israel and the Palestinians.  But no one ever says the the US should restore the descendants of the loyalists the expropriated lands of their ancestors.]

One of the critical litmus tests used by the local committees to smoke out Tories [‘Pariah-baiting’, See, e.g. 1, 2] was a public oath of loyalty to a defense association succeeding the old Continental Association. As historian Alexander C. Flick concluded, the association became the first decisive test of the politics of individuals…. It stamped the individual as a Whig or Tory in the eyes of his neighbors, and treatment was meted out to him accordingly…. Hesitation [to sign] involved suspicion; refusal, guilt. The Loyalist who was true to his convictions, creed, and king was detested, reviled and if prominent, ruined in business, tarred and feathered, mobbed, ostracized, or imprisoned; and all this at the will of a committee, self-constituted and responsible to no one.

Thus, a Revolution and revolutionaries dedicated to the cause of liberty moved to suppress crucial liberties of their opposition—an ironic but not unsurprising illustration of the inherent contradiction between Liberty and Power, a conflict that can all too readily come into play even when Power is employed on behalf of Liberty.

Hesitant to take any steps that might lead irrevocably to independence, the Continental Congress refused to do anything about hunting and combatting [sic] Tories, leaving the task to the separate towns and provinces—this despite the requests from Massachusetts and Maryland for a general congressional test oath for all the colonies. In October 1775, however, Congress learned that Dr. Benjamin Church, one of the top revolutionary leaders of Massachusetts and chief surgeon of the Continental Army, was a traitor in the pay of the British. This grave shock led Congress to urge the various local committees to crack down on everyone who might “endanger the safety of the colony or liberties of America.”

The committees redoubled their efforts in rounding up suspects, imposing test oaths and punishing recalcitrants with disfranchisement or prison. The Continental Army was also authorized to aid in suppressing Tories. Even as conservative a man as George Washington wondered why the Tories, “abominable pests of society… who are preying upon the vitals of their country [should] be suffered to stalk at large, whilst we know that they will do us every mischief in their power.”

[The chapter ends with the following]

… The defeat of the Revolution also required an indomitable will, but General Howe, the commander-in-chief of the British armies after the removal of the disgraced Gage, in October 1775, was an ardent Whig opposed to the war. These inner convictions kept him valiantly trying for a compromise political peace rather than a repressive military solution to the conflict, thereby substantially weakening the resolve of the counter-revolution.

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12 Responses to Suppressing Tories

  1. Orthodox says:

    Kenneth Roberts wrote a series of books from the perspective of the Americans and also from the perspective of the Tories. Arundel was about the attack on Quebec that aimed to spread the Revolution to Canada; Oliver Wiswell tells the story of a man fleeing the mobs in Boston and heading South to find his love. It brings all of these historical facts to life.

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  4. Lesser Bull says:

    I wonder if this explains why the Whigs were so suspicious of the Continentals, especially after the war. In the nature of things, they would have been freer to have opinions than the homefront, and wouldn’t have had the sense of all the bad things that would happen if you didn’t toe the
    Whig line.

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  6. Yes reparations for Loyalists would be a very good thing. Lets see how that would work out and clean up all the toxic waste deposited on those properties. The must be returned in ‘original’ condition.

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  8. A.T. Smythe says:

    In North Carolina, residents of the backcountry were required to make oaths to the patriot government in Hillsborough. Those who refused had their property “sequestered” and their husbands, sons, brothers, etc. imprisoned/forced to serve in patriot militias. This bred discontent and contributed to the growth of loyalist brigandage. The patriot response was summary executions and torture.

  9. sfcton says:

    Tories gave as good as they got. Maybe even more so depending on which AO we are talking about. Reckon the truth never matters much.

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